A Lesson I Couldn't Refuse

All I needed to know about life, I learned from “The Godfather.”

At its heart, it’s a morality tale, asking the age-old question of how evil people become evil. Along the way, it preaches the importance of family (Puzo himself said it was more of a family novel than a crime novel), silence as a negotiating tool and the great joys of Italian food.
And, I learned a lot about being a writer from its author, Mario Puzo.

It’s not that hard to be a writer. You just have to sit down and start writing. Being a good writer? That’s a little more difficult. Being paid to write? Even harder. And, although there is a lot of overlap, being a good writer and being paid to write aren’t always the same thing.
So it was with Puzo in the early stages of his writing career. He wrote articles and fictionalized serials for magazines and even tried his hand at a children’s book (“The Runaway Summer of Davie Shaw,” excerpted in one of my elementary school reading textbooks; I recognized his name from the dog-eared paperback of “The Godfather” my parents owned).

His first book, “The Dark Arena,” was a bleak, cynical tale of profiteering and post-war occupation in Germany. His second, “The Fortunate Pilgrim,” was about growing up in the 1920s in Hell’s Kitchen in NYC. Puzo used his own memories as a guide, having grown up in Hell’s Kitchen and been stationed in occupied Germany during and after WWII.

The books were critically well-received (the New York Times called “The Fortunate Pilgrim” a small classic), but didn’t sell well. He had a growing family, a stable but relatively meager civil service job and a tremendous amount of gambling debts. He had to write something that would sell, and for an Italian American NYC native, that involved the Mob.

Books and movies about organized crime were common throughout the 20th century, but events like the Apalachin raid, Joe Valachi’s testimony before Congress and the mob war chronicled by Gay Talese in “Honor Thy Father” had given new insight into the Mafia. Puzo wrote his next book, “The Godfather,” entirely through research. And, with enough research, you realize exactly where the characters came from. Moe Greene was a thinly-veiled version of Bugsy Siegel. Frank Scalice was shot at a fruit stand in the Bronx, although unlike the book’s title character, he did not survive. The Don had elements of Carlo Gambino and Joe Bonnano, and his son Michael, a college graduate reluctantly pulled into the family business during wartime, seemed based on Bonnano’s son, Bill.

The book was a complete potboiler. Much later, Newsweek called it “possibly the best bad book ever written.” He only got an advance of $5,000 for it, but more than made up for it when it became a bestseller – and then sold the movie rights for $410,000. He wrote the screenplay – winning an Oscar along the way.

The movie was – and really, still is – praised as quite possibly the best ever, thanks to heroic efforts from director Francis Ford Coppola, an Oscar-winning performance by Marlon Brando and the discovery of brilliant young actors like James Caan and Al Pacino. But the reviews were less than kind to Puzo’s original source material and Puzo himself later said, “I wish I’d written it better.”

I’m not sure I agree. One of the things you learn as a writer is that you need people to read what you’re writing. So, I’ve always respected authors like Puzo, John Grisham or even Dan Brown. Their books might not have a lot of subtext (or any at all), but they keep your attention. How bad can a book really be if you keep reading it?

And that’s the real lesson: There is no distinction between writing for pay and writing for posterity, because once you write it, it’s part of posterity whether you want it to be or not. Puzo ended up writing the screenplays for all three Godfather movies, so he maintained some control over his vision of the Corleone family.

The first two movies stood alone, and then a generation later came a third. Like the original novel, it was done for money, but this time it was Coppola in dire financial straits. Puzo had by then become rich and famous. His next book after “The Godfather,” “Fools Die,” received what was at the time the largest advance in publishing history.

It was the great fortune – without the great crime he’d referenced in the epigraph of “The Godfather.”